‘Tales of the City’: What to Know Before Watching the Netflix Reboot
Like New York in “Sex and the City,” San Francisco is one of the most beloved characters in the short-lived 1994 mini-series “Tales of the City.” A soapy adaptation of the stories by Armistead Maupin, the series caused a sensation when it aired on Channel 4 in Britain and PBS in the United States, with its frank depictions of sex, drugs and the lives of Bay Area L.G.B.T. people in the late 1970s.
And then, after six highly successful episodes, PBS chose not to renew the show almost as soon as it had begun in the face of vigorous conservative opposition.
Twenty-five years later, it returns for mainstream American audiences with 10 new installments set to drop Friday on Netflix. But its path to revival was fraught and circuitous — at least on this side of the Atlantic.
Produced and aired first by Britain’s Channel 4, the original starred Laura Linney as a naïve Midwest transplant and Olympia Dukakis as a transgender pot-growing landlady. The new series jumps forward in time, with Linney and Dukakis reprising their roles alongside new additions like Ellen Page, Charlie Barnett (“Russian Doll) and Murray Bartlett (“Looking”).
It’s a wide-ranging cast with a wide-ranging story that now spans decades. Need a refresher on the original series? (There were several.) Want to skip straight to the reboot? Here are a few helpful details.
The Source Material
Before they were turned into a ’90s TV series, Maupin’s slice-of-life stories began as a serialized newspaper column in 1974 in the Pacific Sun, a Marin County alternative weekly. In 1976, the column was relocated to the San Francisco Chronicle where it became “Tales of the City.” Bay Area readers quickly fell in love with Maupin’s fictional characters, whom they envisioned cruising the same aisles at the local Safeway and walking the same Russian Hill streets.
Maupin’s “Tales of the City” columns were compiled into several novels and then followed by several more stand-alone sequels. The ninth and most recent novel in the series was published in 2014.
Earlier Series and Controversies
When the 1994 show came to PBS, it drew stellar ratings — the highest the network had ever received for a drama series. A Peabody Award and two Emmy nominations followed. The show still got scrapped.
Some of the most explicit scenes had been edited for American audiences, but opposition was powerful. In a Corporation for Public Broadcasting balance hearing for interest groups with a stake in the show, conservative groups came down hard on the show. Robert Knight, then the director of cultural studies for the Family Research Council, referred to the show as “a slick piece of gay propaganda,” joining the American Family Association in a push to cut public funding for PBS.
Maupin, among others, has said that he believed PBS caved to homophobic pressure over the show’s same-sex story lines and characters. A PBS representative said at the time that the assessment was “unfair,” arguing, “We don’t follow the commercial television model, where a ratings success immediately spawns sequels and spinoffs.”
Showtime later picked up two of Maupin’s sequels — “More Tales of the City” and “Further Tales of the City” — as limited series, the second ending in 2001. Other incarnations include a BBC radio play and two musical stage shows. For the new Netflix episodes, the showrunner, Lauren Morelli, relied heavily on L.G.B.T. cast members among the many newcomers.
28 Barbary Lane
“Tales of the City” focuses primarily on the people who live in a boardinghouse turned apartment complex owned by Anna Madrigal (Dukakis) at 28 Barbary Lane, all of whom quickly become part of what Maupin coined a “logical family.” Characters like Mary Ann Singleton (Linney) in the original series, and now Shawna (Page), are deeply invested in Anna. Their neighbors are, too, some of whom have lived there for decades despite San Francisco’s rising rents and real estate costs.
Mary Ann Left Her Heart in San Francisco
By the end of “Further Tales of the City,” Mary Ann was marrying the reformed lothario Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross). But in the Netflix premiere, she returns to Barbary Lane for the first time in 20 years for Anna’s 90th birthday party, with a new husband in tow.
Anna Has a Secret
It’s no longer a secret that Mrs. Madrigal is transgender. Instead, she is haunted by something from her past that has long been too painful to share. In the reboot, the truth comes out in flashbacks, with Jen Richards playing a young Anna and Daniela Vega as one of her first friends in San Francisco.
A Major Character Has Been Recast (Again)
For the new series, Murray Bartlett has taken over the role of the longtime Barbary resident and Mary Ann’s best friend, Michael Tolliver. The role was previously played by Marcus D’Amico and, later, Paul Hopkins.
Brian and Michael now own a garden nursery together called Plant Parenthood.
Some New Characters Are in the Books, Some Aren’t
Several new characters appear in later “Tales” books, but retain only some of the same characteristics and story lines in the series, including Shawna, Ben (Barnett) and Jake Rodriguez, a transgender man played by the transgender, nonbinary actor Garcia. (Ben and Jake, both people of color, are written as white in Maupin’s novels.)
May Hong (“High Maintenance”) and the comic Michelle Buteau are among those playing roles created for the reboot.
This Version of San Francisco Is a Bit Fantastical
“Tales” isn’t afraid to get dark, but its primary tone is one of optimism. That was a major appeal of earlier versions, especially for L.G.B.T. people in the ’90s and early 2000s who rarely got to see themselves represented in less than tragic circumstances.
Morelli has described the tone of the new “Tales” as “two feet off the ground”: Its San Francisco is a little more friendly to Barbary inhabitants who in the real world probably couldn’t afford such spacious Russian Hill apartments.
There’s a Writers Room This Time
The original “Tales” was written exclusively by Richard Kramer, adapted from Maupin’s first book; Maupin wrote the Showtime sequels with Nicholas Wright and James Lecesne.
For the reboot, Morelli, who was a co-executive producer on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” brought in an entirely L.G.B.T. writers room. Its members included the playwrights Jen Silverman, Marcus Gardley and Hansol Jung; the journalist and author Thomas Page McBee; and the writer Patricia Resnick (“9 to 5”).